Despite the fashion calendar’s best efforts, an entire hemisphere still knows January is winter. There’s a grand irony to the dance traditional retailers must play: as snow piles up outside, down coats disappear to make room for t-shirts and shorts. In any other world, this is borderline gaslighting. Yet, since time immemorial, the beginning of February has marked the start of fashion’s vaunted “Spring/Summer” season.
No matter your tolerance for cold, there’s a good chance last week wasn’t shorts weather. Even in our Anthropocene climate kerfuffle, February 1 isn’t spring – if you live north of the Snowline, it’s just halfway.
“Luxury utility: the Greats Pronto runner, styled here with Fjallraven parka and Mott & Bow jeans. Mind the texture and fit of your winter layers – the slimmest and finest-woven pieces should be closest to you, leaving room for chunky knits and rugged outerwear as you build out.”
Yet, despite all the wind and ice brought by a misnamed “spring”, stylish men the world over keep wearing sneakers.
Sure, they look great, but subzero temps have a habit of rapidly realigning priorities. At first glance, wearing sneakers in the winter is as backwards as the fashion calendar: sneakers are lightweight, breathable, and built for athletics. Boots (like the kind Mom tied up before little you waded to the bus stop) are big, warm, and built for plodding.
By that logic, a sneaker – especially a low-tech retro sneaker – has no place next to a modern expedition parka. The two are, as the French say, différent.
However, through a différent lens, the sneaker and the coat are from the same cloth. Advancing tastes have embraced the seemingly-paradoxical idea of “luxury utility” – bulky, functional pieces dressed up in luxury materials without many of the posh details that grant luxury pieces their status. The urbane-yet-rugged outdoorswear popularized by brands like Fjallraven, Arc’teryx, and Canada Goose commands a price tag worthy of Madison Avenue, yet on the surface, carries none of the same opulent refinement.
The head-scratching premise of “luxury utility” is best described as superlative simplicity: the plain done right is somehow worthy of an extraordinary price tag.
“Winter minimalism: the Greats Royale High in Blanco, styled here with Uniqlo shirt and model’s own wool coat. Textural, woven materials like wool are a tasteful way to add visual interest to even the simplest of outfits”
Herein lies both its place, and its paradox:
At its core, luxury is defined by comfort and ease. Baroque materials and old-world embellishments are popular ways of expressing those traits, but providing that comfortable experience is the core of a truly luxurious product. Nothing yanks you out of a sensory experience faster than, well, feeling uncomfortable.
In the case of outerwear, a Gucci jacket may have intricate hand embroidery that validates its ruinous price tag, but if that same piece lets in sub-zero winds on your walk from the subway to the office, no amount of fire-emoji Instagram comments will alleviate your frozen misery.
However, if that warmer coat itself is tasteless, no amount of internal warmth will make up for how uncool you feel. To the rational observer, it’s much easier to throw a few layers under that thin jacket than take a bulky parka to charm school.
For the style-conscious (and frostbite-averse), the paradox of “luxury utility” outerwear then makes perfect sense. Take humble, hardworking garments (i.e. a down parka favored by oil workers), render them in the same materials and aesthetic design as the world’s finest luxury houses, and create a product that’s as fashionable as it is functional.
Considering the pedigree of the brands leading this charge (two Canadian outdoors innovators; one Swedish camping supplier), that “functional” bar is easy to clear. Surprisingly, the fashion comes just as easily. Just swap out the embroidered snake for a Goose or two.
Here’s where sneakers come in.
Barring a few ultramodern exceptions (ex. Nike’s Flyknit tech), most fashion sneakers are based on heritage athletic designs stretching back close to centuries. The archetypal “white hightop”, for example, traces its lineage back to the “Converse Nonskid”, a basketball shoe first released in 1917. Designs based on the Nonskid were standard issue NBA court shoes until the Air Jordan era.
The upshot: sneakers – humble, hardworking, built with purpose - have been around for a minute.
A heritage athletic shoe, then, is a perfect candidate for the “luxury utility” process: take a tough silhouette, render it in the same materials and aesthetic design as the world’s finest luxury houses, and you get one hell of a result. A handmade Italian leather high-top with a grippy rubber sole isn’t just fashionable – it’s also warm, sturdy, and built to handle the polished smoothness of a gym floor.
In other words, it’ll handle a February sidewalk just fine. It’ll even look great doing it.
“Luxury meets athleisure: the Greats Royale sneaker, styled here with Arc’teryx parka and DYNE sweats. Stick to a simple color palette and slim silhouette to elevate your gym look.”
Taken together then, a winter parka and a “low-tech” retro sneaker are naturally compatible: both follow the same design principles, subscribe to the same philosophy, and even achieve a similar result. Across a whole range of styles – from athleisure to contemporary, even minimalist casual – sneakers and winter coats have a lot in common. Small wonder they look so good together.
Even in a world where February is “spring”, not all clashes cause confusion. In the case of “luxury utility”, an apparent contradiction creates congruence of a truly stylish kind.